SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 84-page guide for “The Double Helix” by James D. Watson includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 29 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like DNA and The Elegance of Nature.
The Double Helix is American scientist James Watson’s personal account of the discovery of the structure of DNA. He and Francis Crick succeed in determining the three-dimensional chemical structure of DNA in 1953, while they were working together at Cavendish Laboratory, at Cambridge University. Their discovery is widely acknowledged as one of the most important scientific discoveries of the 20th century and a ground-breaking event for biology, genetics, and our understanding of life itself. This is partly because of what the scientists” model suggests about the way DNA works as genetic code. DNA was already thought to be important in the transference of hereditary information from cell to cell, but Watson and Crick’s structure showed how this worked on a molecular level, indicating the way genes, cells and ultimately all lifeforms reproduce.
Watson’s account traces the journey to this momentous discovery, in both personal and scientific terms, from just before his arrival in Cambridge, in 1951, through the years of collaboration with Crick, up to the validation of their structure in 1953. It also traces the involvement of various other scientists.
While Watson and Crick discovered the correct structure and chemical composition of the DNA molecule—a double helix chain with four nucleotide pairs bonded by hydrogen within the structure—how they came to this position is a complex story, involving the influence and contributions of many other scientists. Notably, they were dependent on the x-ray diffraction work on DNA being conducted by Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin at Kings College, London. They were also largely influenced, and spurred on, by the work of renowned American chemist Linus Pauling.
While The Double Helix was published in 1968, the account is told from the perspective of Watson in the early 1950s. It is constructed from letters and memories, and reflects his immediate impressions at the time, some of which have proven controversial. One of Watson’s main stated aims in the book is to show the human side of how science develops; thus, in the narrative, we see repeatedly how science and personal factors intersect, and we are presented with a shifting of focus between treatment of DNA and discussion of the scientists” social lives in Cambridge.
The narrative begins with descriptions of the group working in the Cavendish lab prior to Watson’s arrival, and the important scientific work on DNA by Wilkins and Franklin. Watson, then a post-doctoral research fellow in Copenhagen, describes his own growing interest in DNA, and a meeting with Wilkins which led him to seek out a way of pursuing the problem at the Cavendish, though officially he is there to work on protein molecules.
The relationship with Crick is established, and they set about working on DNA unofficially, mostly in the hours over lunch. We hear about Pauling’s work postulating an a-helix structure within protein molecules, using three dimensional models, and Watson and Crick start applying this approach to DNA.
Crick refines a theory that helps detect helices in x-ray photographs, and Watson attends a talk by Franklin to gather new data. On the back of this they hit upon a model which they think is close to a solution: a three-chained helix. Wilkins and Franklin are brought to see, but are thoroughly unconvinced. Franklin in particular has no interest in helices or model building, preferring to rely on x-ray evidence. Kings College has priority in the work on DNA, and Crick and Franklin are told to leave the project aside.
They focus their efforts on other things, but DNA is always somewhere in the background. The turning point comes when they get hold of a draft of a paper from Pauling on DNA, which looks to have cracked it, but in fact proves to be mistaken. This gives renewed impetus to their work.
Watson goes to London to show the paper to Wilkins and has an argument with Franklin. Wilkins, whose relationship with Franklin has been very strained for some time, is sympathetic and shows him a crucial x-ray photograph that suggests a helical structure.
With these fresh details, Watson and Crick begin a new assault on the problem and, after one further false start, the foundation of the final solution is established. It hinges on the way irregular nucleotide pairs bond together to fit into the regular helical chains of the DNA molecule. They realise that their structure based on complimentary chains has huge implications for the way genes reproduce.
Quickly the solution is finalised and tested, with various Cambridge scientists helping out. Wilkins and Franklin are told of the success and the four simultaneously publish papers on their findings.
Despite its scientific content, The Double Helix was written for a general reader and is fairly accessible. That said, a basic grasp of the science involved and the terminology used in relation to DNA will greatly aid both understanding and enjoyment of Watson’s account. It is certainly useful to build a clear mental picture of the DNA molecule, its component parts, and its implications for gene replication.
Dr. Watson was no doubt well aware of the risks in describing what he really felt at the time. In an era of relentless self-promotion, few could understand that an author might choose to set down the exact truth even if it was unflattering. One set of critics felt the public image of science had been grievously damaged by this unvarnished portrayal of competitive instincts. Another group used his narrative to charge that Franklin had been unfairly robbed of the Nobel Prize.
The annotated edition of “The Double Helix,” prepared by two of Dr. Watson’s colleagues at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Alexander Gann and Jan Witkowski, provides several documents that bear on Franklin’s role in the discovery. One is the devious and destructive letter sent to her by John Randall, chairman of the physics department at King’s College, London.
Randall’s colleague Maurice H. F. Wilkins, the only English researcher officially working on the structure of DNA, had asked him for an assistant. Franklin was duly hired, but Randall, for reasons best known to him, implied in his letter that DNA would be her project alone. This naturally set up a poisonous state of affairs between Franklin and Wilkins. They barely communicated, and Franklin by herself made slow progress, opening up the strong possibility that the American chemist Linus Pauling would solve the problem first.
Because of his own work and an early X-ray photo of DNA taken by W. T. Astbury, Wilkins strongly believed that the molecule had a helical structure. For a long while Franklin doubted this. The annotated edition reproduces the black-bordered postcard in which she mockingly announced the death of the DNA helix. “It is hoped that Dr. M. H. F. Wilkins will speak in memory of the late helix,” she wrote.
The young Dr. Watson had no monopoly on contempt for his fellow scientists. Franklin, for example, wrote of her colleagues in a letter excerpted here, “The other middle and senior people are positively repulsive and it’s they who set the general tone.”
The first Watson-Crick attempt to build a model of the DNA structure was a disaster. Dr. Watson had misremembered the figure for the water content of DNA that Franklin announced in a lecture. He and Crick proudly invited her and Wilkins to Cambridge to view the model and were humiliated when she instantly pointed out the error. Lawrence Bragg, head of Crick’s department at Cambridge, was mortified by the failure and ordered him to get back to his studies on protein structure.
Despite his youth, Dr. Watson had developed a keen insight into the motivations of his older colleagues. He adroitly used Pauling’s first — mistaken — publication on DNA to persuade Bragg that the American chemist would triumph again unless Crick was allowed to resume his model building.
An appendix makes it clear how close “The Double Helix” came to being suppressed. Dr. Watson sent the manuscript to many of the central players, inviting their comments on its accuracy. Harvard University Press had accepted it for publication, but the Harvard authorities came to feel it was too hot a potato and dropped it.
Atheneum Publishers, which picked it up, requested a blander title — previous versions had included “Honest Jim” and “Base Pairs.” The latter — referring to the paired sets of chemical bases that form the steps in the double helix, and by extension to the two discoverers — gave particular offense to Crick, who failed to see why he should be considered base. Atheneum’s lawyers then tried to make the text inoffensive to the many possible litigants.
But Dr. Watson was able to resist many changes. He had cannily persuaded Bragg to write a foreword, and this endorsement from an establishment figure provided sufficient protection for the book to be published. It proceeded to sell more than a million copies.
Classic works of literature from Herodotus’s “Histories” to “Alice in Wonderland” and “The Waste Land” have received the honor of annotated editions. “The Double Helix” richly deserves admittance to this hall of fame. I have one cavil: The publisher, seemingly to economize on black ink, has printed the documents and photographs in such low-definition, smudgy gray that many are unreadable. That aside, the edition produces much of the raw material out of which a masterpiece was created.Continue reading the main story